Jari-Matti Latvala knows how to go fast in Finland. He’s taken on the 1000 Lakes a whopping 17 times during his World Rally Championship career. More than that, he has three Rally Finland wins to prove it.
What Latvala does not know about driving fast on the roads surrounding Jyväskylä isn’t worth knowing.
Looking from the outside it’s clear what’s needed on a broad scale: bravery. The fastest round of the championship punishes a lack of commitment to the throttle pedal.
But bravery should not be conflated with hanging it all out on the edge. Latvala might be a fan of rally history but this is no time to be impersonating a Ford Escort Mk2 with the back end pointing at a dramatic angle.
As Toyota’s technical director Tom Fowler hinted at when talking about setting up the car, it’s about having an asphalt philosophy. The same applies to the drivers.
Latvala watches on as Elfyn Evans slaloms his way through a flowing right-left sequence. He’s already seeing the right technique in action.
“This is an S-corner, where you can see the car is doing small slides, nothing big,” says Latvala after Evans departs the scene. “Because being fast you’re supposed to be doing what I’d call four-wheel slides. So always if it slides, the four wheels are still straight, that is the best way to slide.”
“Because the road is so hard, backed with the clay and the gravel, it doesn’t break the surface. So it becomes like a gravel-like Tarmac. That’s why you see black marks because the grip is very high on this surface. The best way is to drive in a straight line; then you’re driving absolutely like on Tarmac.”
Finland has a reputation for being fast and flowing. A rally of rhythm. But the Rally Finland that Latvala first took on and the one the Toyota drivers under his stewardship face today has changed quite a bit: there are more technical sections than ever before, a shift made to keep a lid on average speeds as cars became progressively faster.
Latvala and his Toyota drivers make sure to practice for these bits too. After all, nobody wants to make a clown of themselves at Kakaristo’s famous junction – there would be no bigger stage on which to suffer an embarrassing stall or spin.
This time Evans is driving in the other direction – and there’s some street furniture in the way on the corner apex, turning a slow but reasonably smooth radius left-hander into a tricky junction.
“This is a very tight place but it’s done on purpose,” explains Latvala.
“It’s normally a 90-degree junction. But they use these cones to make it tighter because normally, if you want to test handbrake turns and want to see that the handbrake is working, and also the brake master cylinder, that it doesn’t interfere with the car behavior.
“Nowadays in Rally Finland, which is so fast, we basically have to slow down the average speed. And that’s why some of these chicanes are used.”
It’s those slow, tricky places that have some of the highest potential for time gain. When drivers have the throttle wide open there’s little opportunity for time gain – it’s when things start to slow down that the gaps open up.
But then there’s the worst-case scenario. A mistake with rally-ending consequences. By its very nature, Finland punishes small mistakes. High-speed, tree-lined stages offer no margins to work with or lean on.
This is where the art of the jump comes in. Your fate is sealed before you even reach the crest of the road, your destination already locked in.
“Elfyn is coming,” says Latvala, stood aside the lip of a jump. “He’ll come from the right-hand side, keep to the right, then a little brake, to the left and open the throttle.”
Evans hits his marks perfectly, of course. But that is the most difficult aspect of being fast in Finland – positioning the car correctly when what lies 100 meters ahead cannot be seen. And the jump Latvala is stood at, which sits slap-bang in the middle of a medium-left, is a case in point.
“It’s a very difficult jump to approach because you have to take the outside line then take it in, and maybe some of the car can be a little sideways before this.
“But if you imagine,” he adds, wandering into the middle of the corner, “you come from the middle, then you try to take the line, you will end up straight in the trees.
“This is the element that’s difficult in Rally Finland. Places like this, where you take exactly the correct position before the jump and you are aiming the car correctly after the jump.
“If you imagine, it lifts up, then it comes down, boom, then it’s straight. That needs to be the vision in your head. It’s easier when the corner after the jump doesn’t turn.”
The problem? Jumps where corners swiftly follow are a dime a dozen on Rally Finland. A small mistake, going a few inches off line can bite back three or four turns later.
Be brave, be tidy, plan ahead. Sounds simple. But as Latvala knows, having gone off the road on Rally Finland multiple times during his career, it’s anything but.